How CGI Killed our Empathy for the Lion King
There are few moments in animated film history more iconic than the death of Mufasa in the original Lion King. The villainous Scar, digging his claws into Mufasa’s paws, lets him dangle from the cliff for what feels like an eternity, before ironically intoning “Long live the king” and pushing him to his death. Mufasa’s eyes widen with combined terror and disbelief, and his mouth opens into a howl of despair as he takes his mortal plummet. His anguish is outdone only by that of young Simba, whose saucer-like eyes fill with horror.
This moment was intense, scarring even, for many a young millennial.
We suspect that scene in the 2019 CGI Lion King remake by director Jon Favreau will not leave nearly the same lasting effect, though it was copied nearly shot-for-shot from the original animated film.
That’s not to say that the animation in the CGI remake was inept or shoddy. Quite the opposite. At times, you almost feel like you are watching the National Geographic channel. Everything from the texture of the lions’ fur to the subtle movements of their muscles feels surprisingly realistic.
And then they start talking. When the animals attempt to act like humans, something just feels… off.
Artist Nikolay Mochkin tapped into uncanniness of the film by creating a “deepfake” version of the film’s trailer showing the animals with bigger eyes, expressive brows, more human-like manes of hair, and rounder faces. It wasn’t perfect, but it made the point: We couldn’t follow cohesive emotional journeys of these CGI characters because they looked so much like real animals. We don’t expect animals to behave like humans; it’s thus disconcerting when they open their mouths to serenade us about their royal lineage.
Mochkin identified something that animators have understood since the very early days of the art form: Namely, that anthropomorphizing non-human characters instantly renders them relatable to audiences. In early Disney cartoons, characters ranging from violins to automobiles were imbued with compelling emotions by the very nature of their human characteristics.
Take the 1935 Disney Silly Symphony Music Land. (Silly Symphony films functioned like early animated music videos.) Music Land features a love affair between a girlish violin and a somewhat-aggressive saxophone. Here, the animators rely on each object’s essential human shape and basic human facial features to convey their emotions. Now sure, these hybrid musical instrument/human characters look weird by today’s standards. Still, they show the way even early animators knew humanity was the essential ingredient for an emotionally-resonant cartoon character.
As animation became more sophisticated, animators got better at seamlessly incorporating human features into non-human characters, such as the blue car in Susie the Little Blue Coupe, with her big eyes and flirtatious lashes:
Or Bambi, with his big eyes and rounded face:
Or Dumbo with his round eyes, expressive eyebrows and eminently chubby cheeks:
Whereas early animated characters had physical characteristics of human beings, animated characters increasingly started to have the facial characteristics of babies.
It’s helpful here to look to German ethologist and one-time Nazi Konrad Lorenz, who proposed the concept of “baby schema” (Kindchenschema) — the set of human features which includes “a relatively large head, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements.” These features, Lorenz argued, are perceived by human beings as “cute” and stimulate our caretaking instincts, thus allowing our species to, you know, survive and stuff. Animators, whether consciously or not, saw the power of “cute” human baby features, and exploited them to give us all the feels.
Look to the 1987 somewhat-under-appreciated animated classic, The Brave Little Toaster, which follows the exploits of a few emotionally-compelling household appliances. A young Jon Lasseter, who would go on to Pixar and alleged creepiness fame, pitched it to Disney as the first fully computer-animated film. Executives initially scrapped the film and fired Lasseter, skeptical that there would be a market for computer-animated films — Oh, the painful irony. As a result, the film was made on a teeny budget, hand-animated by a smaller studio.
Now we’re not arguing that The Brave Little Toaster is a visual triumph for the ages — though we’re not NOT saying that. However, it used simplicity to its advantage by not striving for realism. After all, a realistic toaster would be exactly as emotionally compelling as your real-life toaster — which is to say, not very compelling at all. The characters’ charm is produced by their essential baby-ness, the lack of sophistication suggested by their wide eyes, chubby cheeks and clumsy gait. Really, who do you feel more fondness towards?
That a cheaply-drawn sentient toaster could have more emotional resonance than a state-of-the-art animated lion is revealing. It suggests that, while we might marvel at the realistic way adult Simba’s mane rustles in the breeze, these advancements do not guarantee a more satisfying or meaningful story, or a deeper connection to the characters.
Now, it’s somewhat reductive to attribute our love of Bambi or Simba exclusively to big eyes and chubby cheeks. Sure, these features cater to our baser instincts. But there are plenty of other, more inventive ways that animators can and do anthropomorphize characters, much to the delight of the people. In the original Lion King, the jungle animals frequently move, interact and emote like people, often through whimsical flourishes, like Timon giving Simba a manicure.
Because the new Lion King is so entirely tethered to reality, animators working with the CGI characters didn’t have the option to add creative, comedic anecdotes like the delightful one above. And that lack of humor haunts the film harder than dead-King Mufasa. Or this abomination.
We’d argue that simply because animators can create almost entirely-believable lions doesn’t necessary mean that they should, or that their movies will be better for doing so. If you want to really pull on our heartstrings, it’s probably best to give us those wide-eyed, baby-cheeked lions we know and love.